Asia Life

Japan’s LDP Mulls Tepco Breakup as Fuel Rods OK’d for Risky Removal

Abe panel suggests that utility is unfit to decommission the stricken plant.

Tokyo Electric Power Company, or Tepco, was subjected to yet another round of criticism yesterday – this time from Japan’s ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). A special panel created by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe suggested that Tepco, in its current state, is ill-suited to oversee a massive decontamination effort at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

On numerous occasions since the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami that caused the plant to suffer a meltdown, Tepco has been accused of bungled clean-up efforts, poor transparency and an inability to adequately contain radioactive water leaks. Subcontractors have replaced many of Tepco’s direct hires, leading to additional allegations of very low pay given the life-threatening work environment. Abe’s party has already proposed putting the government in charge of the costs and operations related to the decontamination process – but the new plan favors a breakup rather than a complete takeover.

“[The LDP task force] suggests that responsibility for the massive work of decommissioning the Fukushima plant be stripped from the giant utility in its current form – either by creating a separate unit within Tepco, breaking the unit off as a separate company or hiving it off as a government-affiliated, but independent, administrative agency,” reported Reuters. “A person familiar with the LDP panel's deliberations said it favors the option of creating a separate organization within Tepco to handle decommissioning – a job that could take decades.”

The beleaguered utility has lost $27 billion since the tsunami, which displaced more than 150,000 local residents. Tepco already received a taxpayer bail-out last year, but direct government intervention has yet to take place.

Yesterday, Japanese regulators approved the removal of fuel rods from a cooling pool in the damaged Unit 4 reactor building. More than 1,500 fuel rods are in an unenclosed pool on the structure’s top floor, stoking fears that they may dry out and melt if subjected to another serious earthquake before the removal is complete.

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The removal procedure, described as “the most dangerous phase of the decommissioning process,” has never been attempted. It has taken two years of clearing debris for Tepco to be able to safely enter the reactor building. A Tepco spokesperson said that the utility will first transfer fuel rods to containers that are placed under the water. Then, a crane will remove the containers and place them in a new pool.

Charles Perrow, a Yale University professor who analyzes high-risk technologies told ABC that he is “very scared” about Tepco’s plan, stating that one mistake could create a “chain-reaction” of devastating proportions. Perrow claimed that the Unit 4 cooling pool contains 10 times the amount of radioactive cesium present in the Chernobyl disaster.